The plans, however, sparked objections from Justice Department monitors who called them retention bonuses in disguise, often with easy milestones.
Eventually, companies found they could avoid scrutiny altogether by approving bonuses before bankruptcy filings.
Dozens of companies have approved such payouts in the last five years, said Brian Cumberland, an executive compensation expert at consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal who advises companies undergoing financial restructuring.
Companies argue the bonuses are crucial to retaining executives whose departures could torpedo their businesses, ultimately leaving less money for creditors and employees.
Now, some companies are bolstering those arguments by contending that their business would not have cratered without the economic turmoil of the pandemic.
The pre-bankruptcy payouts are needed, companies say, because potential stock awards are worthless and it would be impossible for executives to meet business targets that were crafted before the economic crisis.
The bonuses ensure stability in leadership that is needed to hold faltering operations together, the firms contend.
Some specialists argue the bonuses are hard to justify for executives who may have few better job options in an economic crisis.
“With double-digit unemployment, it’s a strange time to be paying out retention bonuses,” said Adam Levitin, a professor specializing in bankruptcy at Georgetown University’s law school.
Closed stores, big bonuses